Look into the work of a fearless SA satirist

2014-05-30 00:00

“SOME art soothes the soul. It makes you feel warm and tingly; you’d be at ease bringing your ouma or gogo to view it. But other types of creative work can roil one’s sensibilities, intrude in your face and burrow beneath the skin, irritate like a pesky speck of food lodged behind a rear molar.”

Those words are penned by Steven Dubin in the first chapter of Brett Murray, a book dedicated to the artist and his work, and the description couldn’t fit him better.

Murray is, after all, the creator of now infamous painting The Spear, which depicted President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed.

While some were shocked and others outraged by the work, it was by no means unusual for Murray, who has been posing questions since the darkest days of apartheid.

As Dubin says so eloquently: “Governments may have changed, and controversies have flared up around him, but he has not allowed sacred cows of any breed to graze tranquilly within his creative domain.

“Murray felt as ethically compelled to condemn injustice and official excesses before 1994 as he has done to unmask official corruption, malfeasance, personal extravagance and the ineffable persistence of inequality in the present day. His moral compass does not shift from due north.”

A look through the book showcases exactly that. Never one to shy away from controversy, he made a point of Africanising iconic symbols such as Colonel Sanders for his White Boy Sings The Blues exhibition; and created a sculpture in Cape Town of an African figure with Bart Simpson heads sprouting from it.

His Hail to the Thief exhibition, of which The Spear was just one work, was a series of satirical pieces which attacked the abuse of power in South Africa, as well as the corruption that seems to have become a way of life for those in government circles.

Murray, who lives in Cape Town, chose not to speak publicly when the storm around The Spear was raging, but he admits now that it was a scary time for him, his wife Sanell Aggenbach, their daughter Lola and son Kai, and those who worked for him.

Speaking about the experience at a recent book launch, he said: “My assistant of 17 years and his family were receiving unpleasant and continued violent threats from some members of his community in Khayelitsha.

“The spokesperson for the Shembe Church, representing five million worshippers, publicly called for my public stoning to death … it was serious.

“We had to leave our house and studios for a safe place. We were terrified.

“I had started planning to move my family out the country if the case was to drag out and go to the Constitutional Court.

“The eventual settlement, however disappointing from a principled perspective, was pragmatic and allowed us all to get on with our lives as best we could.”

Murray was also accused of racism, despite his track record as a cultural activist in the eighties, working for the labour unions and the End Conscription Campaign, among other organisations.

The whole sorry saga has left him angry and worried that all the work he produced before The Spear, and the work that will come after it, will be tainted by this one incident.

“This could be an albatross around my neck going forward … or just an irritation … depending on how I deal with it, I suppose,” he says.

One thing that seems unlikely to change, however, is his need to challenge the status quo and to speak truth to power, whatever the cost.

“Political correctness and self-censorship are not cornerstones of effective political satire. If they were, it would not be called satire, rather ‘ironic praise singing’,” Murray says. “Parody is part of the satirist’s arsenal and it is often through this that I hope to expose the new pigs at the trough. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on where you stand, nothing is sacred.”

In addition to Dubin’s essay, Brett Murray includes contributions by Ivor Powell, Michael Smith and Roger van Wyk, each of whom offers his thoughts on Murray’s satirical work and the man himself. They are all fascinating reads.

And then there are the pages showcasing his body of work, starting with his eighties cultural and struggle pieces, and continuing through to The Spear and beyond. It’s a fascinating evolution, which is accompanied by Murray’s own thoughts on each chapter.

As an artist, Murray may not always draw universal praise — in fact he can be downright divisive — but this book certainly offers some new insights into his work. An excellent and thought-provoking read.

• Brett Murray is published by Jacana.

• arts@witness.co.za

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